(For context, last year I had someone close to me die. He was a very sentimental person, with certain valuables to which he was very attached. He specified certain property to be liquidated in a certain way and the proceeds to be given directly to the poor. Since my job moved into the Loop in Chicago about the same time and I pass a dozen panhandlers a day, I have been doing it one dollar at a time in person, in a way in which I think he would approve. I have no problem doing as he asked in a way that I think he would do it himself. But I am not sure, on another level, that this is a good idea. I would not have chosen this as a means had he not said 'directly', or if he were not a strong proponent of going out and meeting people in person, and dealing with them directly.)

Kant seems like the kind of person who believes in institutions like tithing.

But to me, this seems to be an odd place where the two versions of the Categorical Imperative do not fit together well.

Surely, were I destitute, I think I would prefer to have someone help me out. And I don't see a problem with folks giving away money they have over and above their needs. I don't mind being begged from. And I would feel demeaned by the act of begging -- but it seems to be an autonomous choice.

At the same time, I fail to see how the person giving alms is not being used as a pure means. And I am not sure that the process does not do a certain moral damage to the person asking.

Does Kant (or some later commentator on him) reconcile this gap somewhere?

  • What is the first word in the title???
    – Joseph Weissman
    Sep 21, 2017 at 22:19
  • 1
    That is the adjectival version of 'alms'. Ain't English grand?
    – user9166
    Sep 24, 2017 at 20:19
  • If you think you're doing what you would want someone to do if it was you that was begging then I think Kant is satisfied.
    – user20253
    Oct 22, 2017 at 9:44
  • @PeterJ Eh. That implies suicidal people get to kill.
    – user9166
    Oct 23, 2017 at 16:24
  • I don't see how that is implied. It's not a common way of interpreting the old adage 'Do as you would be done by'. .
    – user20253
    Oct 24, 2017 at 11:43

1 Answer 1


Kant, in 'Lectures on Ethics' is reported to have said that "in giving to an unfortunate man we do not give him a gratuity but only help to return to his that of which the general injustice of our system has deprived him." So he would appear to be framing giving in terms of restitution and therefore firmly within the duty of the giver, not on the actions of the beggar themselves. The concept here would be that where evidence of past injustices are presented one has an imperfect duty to rectify them, the beggar's actions are simply the presentation of that evidence.

He also says “We shall acknowledge that we are under obligation to help someone poor; but since the favour we do implies his well-being depends on our generosity, and this humbles him, it is our duty to behave as if our help is merely what is due to him or but a slight service of love, and to spare him humiliation and maintain his respect for himself” (6:448) Metaphysic of Morals.

In both these statements Kant refers specifically to the poor man, not charity or social institutions in general. One cannot see how our giving to charity would directly humble a person, nor how any action on our part could spare him such humiliation, so he must be referring to direct giving.

Of course, being Kant, he contradicts himself elsewhere, "Alms-giving is a form of kindness associated with pride and costing no trouble, and a beneficence calling for no reflection. Men are demeaned by it."

Lucy Allais reconciles these seemly opposed views by arguing that it is the lack of information within a begging exchange which makes it unreasonable. The beggar is offering the potential giver no evidence of injustice and so placing them in a position where they themselves are being used as a means to an end (the relief from poverty) rather than an end in their own right (respecting that they would want some evidence that their giving will actually achieve their objective of alleviating poverty). Her paper is reproduced here, but it is still quite critical of begging and so may not give you the answers you're looking for

  • The English volume (both the older Hackett and newer Cambridge) called Lecture on Ethics is not something Kant authored per se but rather a compilation of student notes, so at least for my 2 cents, it's better to avoid producing sentences that make it seem like he authored it (see the preface to it for confirmation of this).
    – virmaior
    Oct 22, 2017 at 6:17
  • The almsgiving point and the helping the poor are not contrary as these are conceptually distinct for Kant. In fact, they're the same point -- that we need to respect humanity in all its forms and that Kant views giving money in the form of alms as showing a lack of respect for the rationality and independence of that person.
    – virmaior
    Oct 22, 2017 at 6:19
  • @virmaior With regards to your first comment, what Kant actually said might be of interest to the biographer or idolotrist, but what is of interest to the ethicist is that the two positions on alms giving exist (that it rectifiers a financial injustice of the economic system, and that it demeans the giver) and what the implications are of each. Whether the first position is that of Kant himself or an over zealous student is largely irrelevant.
    – user22791
    Oct 22, 2017 at 7:54
  • This is exactly the problem with this site. What's of interest here philosophically is Lucy Allais's argument reconciling the two positions and the way in which she has turned it into an argument about information. I think this is a fascinating insight with plenty of ethically interesting implications, but in the space of a month the only interest in the answer has been to try and defend the integrity of some long dead writer
    – user22791
    Oct 22, 2017 at 7:54
  • Three thoughts on this. First, I only saw your answer because I saw on meta that you complained your philosophically technical answers weren't getting the votes they deserved. Second, with respect to my comment, you could just edit your answer. A slight fix in wording would resolve an implication that is potentially problematic or misleading. Instead, there's no edit and some weird diatribe in the comments that seems to assume I made my suggestion because I'm a Kantian (I'm not a Kantian or at least don't consider myself one).
    – virmaior
    Oct 22, 2017 at 8:28

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